Why all the fuss about mayors?

The 10 new city mayors would be among the most influential individuals in the country.

The Boris and Ken show may be stealing most of the headlines but on 3 May ten of the largest English cities outside London will be hosting referenda to determine whether they will be run by a directly elected mayor instead of a leader and cabinet.

There has been much discussion about elected mayors – should we go for them or shouldn’t we? It was back in 2000 when cities were given the option to move to the mayoral model, yet since then only 12 out of 410 local authorities have chosen to do so. Conviction from government, however, remains strong, as demonstrated by David Cameron’s speech on Monday: “If you want to see your city grow more prominent, more powerful, more prosperous - get out and vote yes.”

Centre for Cities’ research suggests that mayors have the potential to make a difference in their cities. Our latest study shows that if mayors are introduced, they will be amongst the most influential individuals in the country. They would, for instance, represent far more people that the average MP. A mayor of Birmingham would represent over 1 million people, while Liam Byrne MP’s constituency in that city has a population of just 117,300.  This visibility would give mayors the opportunity to drive their cities’ economic priorities.

Our work also shows that the 10 city mayors would have big jobs to do because they need to focus on public services and supporting economic growth. In London, the mayor has 33 London boroughs to look after the everyday needs of their constituents, from social care to collecting the bins, meaning that the London mayor can focus on the economy. But a mayor, if elected in the other 10 cities, would have a much longer ‘to do’ list.

In Leeds, for example, a mayor would need to oversee education in around 250 schools, 50 of which are operating over capacity, at the same time as responding to unemployment challenges. In Nottingham, a mayor would need to provide high quality children’s services and help to coordinate work to improve the skills of the 14,600 people claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA).

Supporting business and physical development will also be a sizable task for new mayors. A mayor in Newcastle, for example, would need to efficiently process planning applications (there were 1,560 in 2010/11) as well as ensure that the city’s 7,500 businesses employing over 100,000 people are supported. And, all this must be done in an era of austerity, which a mayor will have to manage. The ten mayoral cities combined are expected to see their revenue spending power fall by at least 3.8 percent in the new financial year.

With all of this, plus responsibility for delivery of a wide range of public services there is a risk that the economic development agenda is pushed too far down the agenda. But in a time of slow economic recovery, support from mayors for the economy is vital – and this is where the experience of international cities suggests that having a mayor can be an advantage. Having one clear figurehead who acts as an ambassador for the city to government and to business, who lobbies for investment and who coordinates the work of the public sector has delivered benefits in cities as varied as Boston and Barcelona.

The government has resisted setting out the powers that mayors will gain, arguing that this should be up to individual cities to negotiate.  But a recent BBC poll suggested that 62 per cent of people in Doncaster, Sheffield, Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield didn’t know the referendum was taking place, so now is a good time for the government raise awareness by spelling out what powers will be afforded to mayors. 

Our research suggests that mayors should use their position to develop a strategic plan for the local economy that also considers how the local area relates to neighbours. They should be empowered to take planning decisions of strategic importance, delegating all others to the local authority planning committee.

Finally, the referenda in May are for local authority mayors. But, research by Centre for Cities suggests that mayors would have greater potential to support local economic growth if they operated over a geography which mirrors the natural economy, rather than current administrative boundaries. Bristol’s labour market footprint for example stretches out from Bristol local authority to Wotton-under-Edge 16 miles North and Weston-Super-Mare 18 miles south.  Government should therefore give cities the opportunity to move towards a metro mayor model over time.

Mayors are no panacea but our research shows that, particularly if they are given the right range of powers, mayors have the potential to deliver significant benefits for city economies.

Alexandra Jones is the chief executive of Centre for Cities.

Shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne plans to stand for mayor of Birmingham. Photograph: Getty Images.

Alexandra Jones is the director of the Centre for Cities

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide